Ferlinghetti the Beat is given the Boot


Lawrence Ferlinghetti pic

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died a few months ago aged 101 was a hero to many in the fifties — as publisher, spokesman, and owner of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookshop, he became the eminence griseof the Beat generation. He was also a best-selling poet with his second collection, A Coney Island of the Mind(1958). It is less well known that in the UK this collection was received far less enthusiastically, to say the least. In fact it was pummelled by fellow poet and critic Al Alvarez, who reviewed regularly for the Observer, where this review appeared in 1958.


Alvarez, like Geoffrey Grigson, who despised him for promoting the ‘ confessional school ‘ and for approving suicide, among other things, had a reputation for physical and mental toughness. A rock-climber and poker-player, who published books on both subjects, he despised Romanticism in poetry, and the genteel perspective of poets like Larkin and Betjeman, preferring the gritty world view of writers such as Lowell and Berryman. And like any tough guy Alvarez spoke his mind. If a poem didn’t measure up he said so without equivocation. And in his view, Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mindwas bad. In fact it was ‘extraordinary bad’.  Alvarez’s review is worth reading, not only for what he says about Ferlinghetti:


Mr Ferlinghetti’s reputation largely depends on his extra-literary activities; he has stage- managed many of the San Francisco Beatniks; he owns the City Lights Bookshop where they sometimes meet; from it he has published some of their verse. He has also fooled around with that latest sub- literary form of publicity, poetry and jazz…’ 


 But also how he saw the Beatnik movement.


‘ The Beatnik’s pose is one of rejection and eccentricity; they say ‘ no’ to society, daddy and sense, and ‘yea ‘ (Whitman’s word) to the great exploited body of Mother America and to what Jung, had he seen them, might have called ‘ the collective inertness. ‘ None of this, of course, makes up a literary revolution. It is simply a minor revolt, another scrabbling for fame and rewards with different slogans. And Mr Ferlinghetti is, at least, less belligerent than his colleagues. At heart he is nice, sentimental, rather old-fashioned writer who, he admits, ‘ fell in love with unreality’ early and has since developed a penchant for words like ‘ stilly’, ‘shy’, ‘sad’, ‘ mad’, and ‘ ah’. He also has a pleasant little talent for verbal whimsy—‘ eager eagles’, ‘ the cat with future feet ‘, ‘foolybears’ and the like—which no invoking of the usual private parts will change from low-level Edward Lear into tough surrealism.
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Clement Wood—the most prolific American writer ?

clement-wood picThere are differences of opinion regarding who are the most prolific English writers—that is, who have written the most words. Some would argue that Charles Hamilton, the creator of Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School, tops the list. He is supposed to have produced around 100 million words in a writing life of over sixty years of contributing school and adventure stories for The Gem, The Magnet and many other magazines. Another contender—who is still very much alive—is the that extraordinary man from East Dereham, the Reverend Lionel Fanthorpe, who cut his teeth as a writer of pulp science fiction for’ Badger Books’ in his late ‘teens ( at one stage he was penning a book each fortnight ) and went on to write prolifically on the supernatural and paranormal—that is when he wasn’t presenting Fortean TV, gaining awards in swimming and judo , being a management consultant, and riding around the UK on his powerful motor bike with his wife. He certainly holds some sort of record for the number of titles he produced. I interviewed him twice—for Book and Magazine Collector and Mensa Magazine—and I can honestly say that of all the hundred or more people I have got on tape, he is by far the most unusual figure.

But then we have Clement Wood (1888 – 1950) who, according to his own publicity, may be the most prolific  American wordsmith. This poet, erotic novelist, biographer, journalist, short-story and pulp-fiction writer, and compiler of multi-volume encyclopaedias, also gave talks on writing and it is in one of these talks– to the Writers Club of Gloversville, New York in June 1938– that he made the astonishing claim that he had written over 25 million words! Here is his claim. Continue reading

Mary Weston and O A Merritt-Hawkes – a Dilemma of Identity?

7611011883Mary Weston wrote three books in the 1940s: a successful travel book informing wartime Britons about the homeland of their American allies; a novel about a woman gaining wisdom from experience; and a memoir of her early life entitled One American Child.

Only the last of these revealed that she had written three previous books under the name of O.A. Merritt-Hawkes, which was almost her real name.

Onèra Amelia Merritt was born on February 15th 1877 in New York City.  Throughout her childhood the family’s financial circumstances seesawed between owning a string of ponies and scrubbing floors for a living.  As a child she was tomboyish and need-to-know bookish, unlike her sisters, and at about 13 was packed off to boarding school near London.  Clearly the experience was formative; she settled in England.

Early dreams of being a great actress were abandoned in favour of science.  She attended Fabian lectures in London, gained a B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Zoology, and married a Birmingham dental surgeon.  In fact she married Richard John James Hawkes twice, once at a civil ceremony in Birmingham (1901) and again in a London church (1904).  Three children followed.

Sometimes she used her legal surname Hawkes, but most of her zoological research papers were published as by O.A. Merritt Hawkes, with or without a hyphen.  Under this name she also gave lectures for the Eugenics Education Society, wrote popular articles, broadcast some talks over BBC local radio, and produced three books about life and travel in Staffordshire, Persia and Mexico.  In the first book she described her family’s country-cottage retreat from weekday Birmingham, writing pleasantly of the Kinver area and her neighbours who included England’s last cave-dwellers.  However she gave very few details about her own life; this was to be typical of all her books, even her childhood memoir from which her real name is absent and in which her father’s name is not the one on her marriage certificates.

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Banned books

Lummox coverBanned books: No 12: Lummox by Fannie Hurst

Found in the Summer 1924 issue of Now & Then (Jonathan Cape) is this brief announcement:

‘LUMMOX finds new admirers every day. Miss Hurst is expected in England shortly, and many admirers are hoping to meet her. She is a prominent figure in New York literary and dramatic circles and has a number of friends in Europe also. The ‘ ban ‘ of the circulating library still remains, but the book is on sale at the bookshops. The current impression is the third.’

This ‘ban’ is a bit of a puzzle. The journalist for Now & Then places the word in quotation marks, which suggests that although Mrs Hurst’s book was in the shops, it was not available for borrowing in certain circulating libraries, though these libraries are not specified. Nor is it clear whether these libraries are in the U.S. or the U.K. A thorough online trawl has revealed nothing on this issue.

At the time Fannie ( or Frances ) Hurst, as the report suggests, was an immensely popular, best-selling American author of rather sentimental and melodramatic novels, many of which had been adapted for the cinema. It has been claimed that she accepted $1m for the film rights of one particular novel. As for the problematical Lummox there seems little in this tale of a young female immigrant who is exploited and abused by her rich employers that could possibly offend even the most delicate sensibilities of an average circulating library subscriber. However, Hurst’s proto-feminism and support for the oppressed in society might have touched a few nerves among members of the wealthy middle class in post-war Britain. [RR]


Reviewers getting it wrong


Robert Frost picA Boy’s Will by Robert Frost, reviewed by C. R. Orage in The New Age , June 12th 1913.

‘He declares of his friends meeting with him after some years:-

They would not find me changed from him they knew—

Only more sure of all I thought was true (trew).


Evidently he dreamed no great dreams, believed in nothing beyond the will of a mortal boy to accomplish. Let him trot along “in the gloaming “, as he says, with his Mary, and rhyme “those is” with “roses”. As idle rubbish is published every day.’

Frost, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and now recognised as one of America’s greatest poets, was nearly forty when he published this debut collection, which was generally well received. Elsewhere in the same issue, Orage was equally harsh on Yeats, another great poet, who, though only nine years older than Frost, was already established as a leader of the Celtic Twilight movement. From his treatment of all but one of the other poetry and novels reviewed in this issue, Orage clearly despised pretentiousness, preciousness, poetical clichés, lovey-dovey verse, Georgianism, fancy and whimsy, Edwardian chicklit, and melodrama about marriages. The trouble is, Frost’s collection demonstrated none of these faults. Perhaps he just didn’t like Americans.

The only collection Orage approved of was Green Days and Blue Days by P. R. Chalmers—‘fifty or so ditties by a modern young man’, according to Orage. Chalmers, a banker by profession, wrote other ‘ditties‘ and also books on hunting. [R.M.Healey]


Laughton Osborn

Found- a rare anonymous work by Laughton Osborn, an almost completely forgotten writer and one time friend of Poe - A Handbook of Young Artists and Amateurs in Oil Painting (Wiley and Putnam New York 1845.) The author is given as 'An American Artist' and the book demonstrates  a very thorough technical knowledge of the subject, particularly the making and mixing of colours. Very much a writer manqué, his entry in the American Dictionary of Biography ends on this pathetic note: 'His plays were obviously for the library, and not for the footlights, and a search of dramatic records fails disclose any mention of their production in New York or elsewhere.' An online search some 80 years later shows no mention of any performances or reviews of his plays but brings up one modern critic (David S Reynolds) writing that his plays '…have been  deservedly ignored because they sheepishly attempt to duplicate both the  the form and content of Shakespeare's plays.' As a friend (and correspondent) of the 'divine Edgar', surely the greatest of all American writers, he may be worthy of greater note. Poe writes about him fulsomely in The Literati of New York (1850) which is available at Wikisource. The shorter Allibone has this: 'Novelist. Author Confessions of a Poet, Sixty Years of the Life of Jeremy Levis,etc. A writer of some power, whose works have been criticised as of questionable morality.'

Here is his entry in the American Dictionary of Biography:

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